BANGKOK – Lawmakers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) urged Australia to pressurize Laos to respect human rights on Monday.
Representatives of the two countries are set to meet for a human rights dialogue on Tuesday and Wednesday in Vientiane, the Laotian capital.
“The human rights situation in Laos continues to be abysmal. Since Sombath’s disappearance, the space for independent civil society in the country – already one of the most repressive in the region – has narrowed considerably. Meanwhile, the public as a whole remains deeply fearful of raising sensitive issues,” Charles Santiago, Malaysian MP and president of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said in a statement.
Australian officials should press the government of Laos to respect human rights at the Australian-Laos human rights dialogue, scheduled for July 18-19, 2017, in Vientiane, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the Australian government. Key areas of concern in Laos are freedom of speech, association, and assembly; enforced disappearances; abusive drug detention centers; and repression of minority religious groups.
“The Lao government’s suppression of political dissent and lack of accountability for abuses stand out in a human rights record that is dire in just about every respect,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “As a major development partner of Laos, Australia can and should press for greater respect for basic rights.”
Restrictions on civil and political rights in Laos include draconian controls over freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly. The lack of fair trials of criminal suspects, widespread judicial corruption, and entrenched impunity for human rights violations are continuing problems, Human Rights Watch said. Continue reading “Laos: No Progress on Rights”
SET to enter the fifth round of human rights talks with Laos on Tuesday, civil society groups have called upon the Australian government to criticise a lack of progress regarding basic rights and freedoms in the one-party Southeast Asian nation.
The Australia-Laos Human Rights Dialogue is set to be held in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on July 18 and 19, and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) reports to have received numerous submissions from local civil society organisations.
Australia is one of only two countries which have regular bilateral dialogue on human rights issues with the tiny communist state of Laos. Coincidentally, this year the two countries mark 65 years of diplomatic relations. The most recent Dialogue was held in Canberra in 2015.
BANGKOK-Human rights groups say the international community, including the United Nations, needs to press Lao authorities on human rights issues.
The calls come amid a string of harsh jail terms handed down by Lao courts against critics of the Communist government.
Rights groups point to Laos’ failures in taking “significant steps to remedy” a poor human rights record and tough restrictions on freedom of speech, association and assembly.
Three Lao migrant workers were recently sentenced to jail terms of between 12 and 20 years for comments posted on social media while in Thailand and because they attended a protest outside the Lao Embassy in Bangkok.
Human rights groups have condemned harsh prison sentences and called for the release of three Lao migrant workers who posted critical comments on social media and joined a protest outside the Lao Embassy in Thailand.
The workers, Somphone Phimmasone, 30, Soukan Chaithad, 33, and Ms Lodkham Thammavong, were sentenced in early April to prison terms of between 12 and 20 years.
A harsh message on human rights
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said the sentences sent a “chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule.”
While in Thailand, the migrant workers posted messages on social media critical of the government, alleging corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations.
They also participated in a protest against the government outside the Lao Embassy in December, 2015.
They were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos to reapply for official documents before planning a return to Thailand.
Government accuses the 3 of ‘threatening national security’
Lao state-run television showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham, being held in custody at the police headquarters in Vientiane. Official reports accused the three of threatening national security and tarnishing the government’s reputation.
Andrea Giorgetta, FIDH Asia Desk director, said the arrests highlighted the government’s close monitoring of citizens abroad.
“The government of Laos went out of its way to persecute these three dissidents actually based in Thailand. It shows that the government is also stepping up on-line monitoring of its citizens because these three have expressed their opinions and criticisms of the government policy,” Giorgetta told VOA.
Laos classified as ‘not free’
The U.S.-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, in its assessment of the civil liberties and media rights, classifies Laos as ‘not free’, with low or zero ratings on political right and liberties.
In 2016, Freedom House noted Lao authorities were increasingly attentive to criticism on social media, detaining citizens for “contentious posts” ahead of Laos chairing meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the migrant workers had taken “advantage of the relative freedom” they experienced in Thailand to criticize the Lao authorities.
“The criticisms should not be a crime,” he said, adding the three were held for several months in pre-trial detention. The sentencing highlighted the “shortcomings in the Lao judicial system,” he said. “There is a complete lack of transparency and accountability within the Lao judicial system, which you see when people don’t have access to lawyers, trials are conducted in secret, families are only informed well afterward of proceedings against their loved ones.”
No tolerance for criticism
The verdicts add to a list of arrests and forced disappearances of activists and protesters who have been critical of issues ranging from land disputes to allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
The high profile disappearance in December 2012 of well known civil society leader Sombath Somphone, after he was seen being arrested at a police checkpoint, remains unresolved amid calls for transparency in the case.
Shalmali Guttal, a spokesperson for “The Sombath Initiative”, said harsh sentencing by authorities in Lao has been on-going over several years as regional governments also look to tighten controls over social media.
A long history
“This is a trend in Lao for sure. It’s been going for a very long time of course because there is no critical discussion publicly about policy, about governance, about how the affairs of the state and society is conducted. So yes, that’s been going on. It is also part of this trend in the region,” Guttal said.
Other cases include the 2009 detention of a group of men and women planning to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations in Laos, while in 2007 an outspoken critic of Chinese sponsored agricultural projects also disappeared.
FIDH’s Giorgetta said with the existing media outlets tightly controlled, increasingly people and Lao civil society have turned to social media to express grievances.
“We have seen arbitrary arrests of activists who have exposed cases of corruption and bad governance,” he said.
Huge construction projects underway
Of key concern are major infrastructure projects, especially by Chinese and Vietnamese investors, including the China-led $6.0 billion, 415 kilometer rail line from northern Laos to the capital Vientiane.
“The infrastructure and development projects being implemented in Laos – but that merely results in massive human rights violations – like the case of the Lao China railway that just started [in construction],” he said.
Robertson’s Human Rights Watch says a major concern for the three migrant workers will be to survive the harsh prison conditions.
He said the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has applied its “full force to basically ruin these people’s lives and throw them behind bars for long sentences, which given the very poor conditions in Lao prisons, for some of them could be a death sentence.”
We know about North Korea as Asia’s most hardcore police state. The government enslaves and kills people who dispute the policies of leader Kim Jong-un.
Laos looks free and happy by contrast. Travelers can walk across the quiet, uncluttered capital Vientiane’s commercial-tourist district in an hour if that. A string of cafes near the riverside make French coffee. Slow-moving, smiling vendors are more likely to miscount change in your favor than cheat. The warm orange hues of Buddhist monks and temples radiate from streetsides. Westerners can get visas on arrival at the Vientiane airport. The idea of a police state would seldom occur to the interloper in Laos, though it’s a one-party Communist country.
Now try being a Laotian citizen with gripes about how things are run. Authorities in the country with a population of 7 million make some of Asia’s most chilling grabs of dissenters. Laos is better known for “disappearances” compared to putting people on trial after detention periods as practiced in communist China and Vietnam. And you never know when you might say something that disappears you, a deterrent to speaking out. Continue reading “See Who’s Asia’s No. 2 Police State After North Korea, And It’s Not China”
(Bangkok) – The Lao government has made no progress accounting for civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared on December 15, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. Four years after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital, Vientiane, the government needs to provide information on his fate or whereabouts.
“Since the start, the Lao government’s investigation of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance has been a pattern of delay, denial, and cover-up,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Four years on, Sombath’s family is no closer to learning the truth about his fate than they were in the weeks after he went missing.”
A police closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera on the evening of his arrest shows police stopping Sombath’s jeep and leading him into the checkpoint. The footage shows unidentified individuals bringing Sombath out within minutes and putting him into another vehicle, which then drives away. Another individual later drives away in Sombath’s jeep.
Last December, Sombath’s family released new CCTV footage obtained from the same area as the police checkpoint that shows Sombath’s jeep being driven back to the center of Vientiane. At a minimum, this should have prompted a review of other CCTV cameras along the main route the car was taking back into the city.
There is no evidence of any serious government investigations into the enforced disappearance. Lao authorities have not organized a specific briefing on the status of the case for Sombath’s family since June 2013.
An enforced disappearance is defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances inflict unbearable cruelty not just on the victims, but on family members, who often wait years or decades to learn of their fate. Under international law, “disappearances” are considered a continuing offense, one that is ongoing so long as the state conceals the fate or the whereabouts of the victim.
Laos signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in September 2008, but has yet to ratify it. International donor agencies should press the government to ratify the treaty and adopt national legislation to implement its requirements.
The government’s continued failure to seriously investigate cases of enforced disappearance violates its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Laos is a party. The covenant states that governments must provide an “effective remedy” for violations of basic rights, including the right to liberty and security of person.
“Over decades of his work in grassroots rural development, Sombath inspired thousands of Lao farmers and their families with simple yet innovative techniques to help them farm better and live better,” Robertson said. “But today, Sombath’s uncertain fate prompts fear among Lao civil society groups that their survival is at the whim of the government.”
On 15 December 2012, Laos activist Sombath Somphone was abducted in Vientiane. Four years later, his family and human rights groups are still searching for answers.
Today marks four years since the forced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, an internationally recognised Laos civil society leader who spent three decades advocating for the environment, civic engagement and democracy in his home country.
Sombath was forcibly disappeared after being stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane. Police closed-circuit television shows officers stopping Sombath’s jeep and bringing him into the checkpoint. Within minutes, Sombath reappears and is taken away in another vehicle. His jeep is later driven away by another individual. Last December, Sombath’s family released new footage showing the vehicle being driven to the centre of Vientiane.
Thursday was the fourth anniversary of the day her husband, Laotian community organizer Sombath Somphone, vanished at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital — a suspicious disappearance reflecting the repressive tactics of the country’s Communist rulers, who have quashed political dissent since taking power in 1975.
After Sombath vanished, Laotian authorities denied responsibility and promised investigations that never materialized, though video evidence showed that his last known location was in police custody.
The disappearance of Sombath Somphone remains one of the most enduring and heartbreaking mysteries of modern Laos as the abduction of the world-recognized rural development activist at a police checkpoint four years ago remains unsolved.
“As the fourth anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance approaches, my heart becomes heavier by the day,” his wife Shui Meng Ng told RFA’s Lao Service on Tuesday. “I never expected that I would still have no news of Sombath after so long.”